Thursday, April 25, 2019

Impeachment, Congressional Subpoenas and Property Damage – How the Easter Egg Roll Became a White House Tradition

Quiver: an Illustrated magazine for Sunday and General Reading, Annual Volume, 1899, London, Cassell & Co., page 519.

On Easter Monday 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the grounds of the White House for children to engage in the unique, local tradition of rolling Easter eggs, in what is now widely considered the first “official” White House Easter egg roll.  But it wasn’t the first time children had rolled eggs on the White House lawn.  Children had been rolling their Easter eggs on the White House lawn through at least the four previous Presidential administrations, and it may have been much older.  It was a “yearly custom” as early as 1860, during the Buchanan administration.[i]

To-day, according to yearly custom, the juveniles, boys and girls, are enjoying themselves immensely in the President’s grounds rolling Easter eggs down the slopes, cracking them, and having a merry time generally.  The grounds are fairly musical with their ringing, childish laughter.
Evening Star (Washington DC), April 9, 1860, page 3.

Hundreds of bright and happy children enjoyed themselves in the President's grounds yesterday, and on other grounds, rolling their Easter eggs.

National Republican (Washington DC), April 15, 1873, page 4.

The big boys have for a week been “picking eggs,” and the little ones and the girls have been anxiously waiting for to-morrow to see their dyed-eggs of many colors, and will wait anxiously for the next day, when they can have the fun of rolling both themselves and the eggs down hill and having a good time generally – the grounds of the Capitol and the Executive Mansion being placed at their disposal for that purpose annually.

National Republican (Washington DC), March 27, 1875, page 1.

First Lady Dolley Madison is often credited with introducing the annual tradition in the 1810s.  But that story first appeared in print in the 1940s, so it may just be an old (President’s)-wives’ tale.  One account published in 1885 said the custom had “been observed for 60 to 70 years,” which would agree, generally with the later Dolley Madison tale.  A widely circulated article published three years later suggested that “Easter egg rolling at the capital [(the city, not the building)] has been going on every Easter Monday for nearly thirty years,” noting that it had been described as usual in 1860.[ii] 

But even though 1878 was not the first year eggs were rolled at the White House, it did mark a dramatic shift in Washington DC egg-rolling power dynamics, from the Legislative branch to the Executive branch.  It was the first year in recent memory in which the White House, and not the Capitol building, was the premier Washington DC destination for egg rolling. 

Two years earlier, and less than two weeks following a particularly disruptive, chaotic and destructive Easter Monday in 1876, President Grant signed legislation banning egg rolling on the steep, grassy terraces around the Capitol.  Heavy rains put the kibosh on the egg rolling in 1877, so 1878 marked the first major egg rolling activity since the ban.  With the Capitol off-limits, the White House was the only game in town, establishing the White House as THE place to roll one’s eggs.  As a result, the 1878 White House Easter egg roll is widely considered the first “official” egg roll, an event held annually since then with few exceptions. 

Several factors contributed to the disruption, chaos and destruction at the Capitol building on Easter Monday in 1876.  Damage to the lawn had been a concern for several years, but a short story about the event in a popular magazine with nationwide distribution may have increased general awareness of the previously strictly local tradition, bringing in even bigger crowds and a “disorderly element”[iii] causing more damage.  And on that particular Easter Monday, the crowds were augmented by spectators and press drawn to two high-profile hearings, one in the Senate and one in the House.

The Senate was in session that day for the impeachment trial of William W. Belknap, the first member of a Presidential cabinet ever accused of stealing.  The House was in session that day to vote on Hallet Kilbourn’s Habeas Corpus resolution, an issue testing the limits of Congressional power to compel members of the Executive branch to testify at a Congressional hearing.  Congress had issued a subpoena, and Kilbourn refused to testify.  Congress voted to compel his testimony, but the Supreme Court overturned the vote a couple years later, with its decision in Kilbourn v. Thompson. 

President Trump and his legal team put Kilbourn v. Thompson back in the news in 2019, citing it in a lawsuit seeking to limit Congressional inquiry into matters arguably already addressed by the Mueller report.  Ironically, he filed the lawsuit on April 22, 2019, Easter Monday, the same day he and First Lady Melania Trump attended an Easter egg roll on the South Lawn of the White House.  Time will tell whether the Executive or Legislative branch will prevail on the issue, but one thing remains the same – the White House still has an Easter egg roll and Congress does not.  Was he trying to send a message by filing it on Easter Monday? (Yeah, prob'ly not.)

When Easter egg rolling came to Washington DC, whether introduced by Dolley Madison or someone else, it was likely influenced by an earlier egg-rolling tradition from Britain.  In 1891, “Professor Mason of the museum” (presumably Otis T. Mason, ethnologist, folklorist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution) gave credit to “a few old Scotch settlers who brought the custom from the land of the thistle.”[iv]

The Professor may have been right, or at least not far off.  Northern England has an egg rolling tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

The Republican majority in the Senate prepares to smash bills proposed by the Democrat majority in the House.  Evening Star (Washington DC), April 17, 1911, page 1.

Egg Rolling in England

A bonny springtime too, wer thad,
   Primrooases look'd so prim;
An't' crocus buds look'd up so fair,
   An't' brook sang quite a hymn;
An't' birds wer in full glee thad day;
   At't change fro' wintry weather,
As Nell and me, i' Sunda best,
   Went beawling' eggs together!

Henry Yates, "the Bard of Islington," Blackburn, Lancashire, 1890.[vii]

In England, the custom of rolling (or bowling) eggs at Easter dates back to at least the 17th Century, limited primarily to Northern England, including Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cubria, Durham and Northumberland.

In the North of England . . . in Cumberland and Westmoreland, boys beg, on Easter Eve, Eggs to play with . . . .  These Eggs are hardened by boiling, and tinged with the juice of herbs, broom-flowere, &c.  The Eggs being thus prepared, the boys go out and play with them in the fields: rolling them up and down, like bowls, upon the ground, or throwing them up, like balls, into the air.

John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, London, F. C. and J. Rivington, 1813, page 146 (citing Thomas Hyde, De Ludis Orientalibus, 8vo. Oxon. 1794, page 239, "De Ludo Ovorum").

By the 1800s, Easter Eggs were generally rolled on Easter Monday, sometimes extending into Easter Tuesday.
Easter Monday. – Monday last was a day of merry-making for the young folks here, some hundred of whom assembled, under the superintendence of the Sunday school teachers and others, in the Friarage field, to enjoy the pastime of egg-rolling.

Lancaster Gazette, April 25, 1835, page 3.

Over the next few decades, the pages of the Lancaster Gazette chronicled similar events in other area villages, including Heysham, Skerton, Wray and Preston. Other papers noted egg rolling in Northumbria, Richmond (North Yorkshire), Morpeth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a few other places, nearly all of the located in northern England.

Pace egg. They roll or troll them on the ground, in the fields, or elsewhere.  At Whitby there is or was a ‘children’s fair held in the space between the parish church and the abbey.’ On Troll-egg-days, or Easter Monday or Tuesday. . . . In some parts of E. Yorkshire the children go to the top of some of the Wold bluffs to troll their eggs down, and each by resorts, year by year, to the same point, trolling his egg down some shallow or surface-gully which is reserved to him solely by a kind of prescription. 

Rev. J. C. Atkinson, Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect, London, John Russel Smith, 1868, pages 368-369.

Some children in Northern Ireland rolled eggs, but it is unclear whether this was a native Irish custom or brought there by English transplants.


In former years the Cave Hill used to be covered on Easter Monday with young persons who amused themselves in rolling eggs down the slopes.  Yesterday, under the combined influence of the weather and the restrictive measures of Mr. Joseph Magill, the hill was almost entirely deserted.

Belfast News-Letter (Northern Ireland), April 7, 1863, page 3.

One source suggests that eggs were rolled on Monday, instead of Sunday, because of a resourceful Sunday School teacher’s efforts to boost attendance on Easter Sunday.  The specific time-frame, location and name of the headmaster involved lend the tale an air of authenticity, but the existence of Easter Monday traditions elsewhere suggests that it might just be fiction.

The Sunday school story also describes how children in at least one place played the game – it was more like a demolition derby than a race, the last egg to break was the winner.


In Lancaster, as in many other places in the north of England, it is the custom at Easter for the children to amuse themselves by rolling pace-eggs, so called probably from their being Paschal or Easter-eggs.  Pence are saved for some time, and as the festival draws near they are invested in eggs and sundry dyes, which are to impart to the eggs the varied hues which distinguish them from common eggs.  The eggs when prepared are taken into the fields and rolled from one child to another, the egg that stands most collisions without breaking being considered the victor.  The hard-boiled eggs are then eaten or bartered for sweetmeats.  This holiday has been celebrated for hundreds of years, and as a relic, we suppose, of Roman Catholic times was commonly observed on Easter Sunday.

On that day, some thirty or forty years since, the Sunday-schools of Lancaster were deserted by their scholars, who were to be found in the fields instead of in their classes.  This of course had caused grief to all connected with the management of Sunday-schools, and at last one man determined, God helping him, to stop the evil.

The children had been in the habit of rolling their eggs on any piece of ground they could find without any concert or union.  And so, to tempt them to give up their Sabbath desecration, Mr. Wane, who was for forty years the superintendent of St. Ann’s Sunday-school, Lancaster, promised to obtain a large field suited for the purpose, if the children of the town would put off their egg-rolling till the Monday. . . .

In a short time the Monday conquered, and the Sunday egg-rolling became a thing of the past, never to be revived.  The superintendent of St. Ann’s school still engages a field for the pace-egging, and on Easter Monday last some hundreds of children of the town were to be seen keeping up the curious old custom.  Not an egg is rolled in Lancaster on the Sunday.

The Sunday at Home Magazine for Sabbath Reading (London), Volume 10, 1863, page 437.

Secretary of War Howard Taft and Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio roll eggs for political advantage – Teddy Roosevelt looks on from the Balcony as his namesake Teddy Bear comforts Taft. Evening Star (Washington DC), April 1, 1907, page 1.

Egg Rolling in the United States

In the United States, the custom of rolling eggs on Easter Monday was limited primarily to
Washington DC, and neighboring portions of Virginia and Maryland.  

As early as 1851, Easter Monday was observed as “general holiday” in Washington DC, and non-specific “playing” with eggs (if not rolling) was already a “time-honored” custom.

The capitol parks were full of smiling little boys and girls, playing on the smooth grass and enjoying the sun-shine and the flowers of spring.  Egg-shells, dyed with every shade of the seven primitive colors, and in varied combinations, were scattered all about, showing how well this time-honored little custom has been preserved.

Daily American Telegraph (Washington DC), April 22, 1851, page 2.

A few years later, they unambiguously rolled eggs on Capitol Hill, but oddly on Good Friday instead of Easter Monday.

Yesterday, being Good Friday, some of our Christian people duly honored it with religious observances. . . .  'The boys,' as heretofore, picked eggs, and not a few little girls rolled eggs down the grassy slopes of the Capitol grounds.

Triweekly Washington Sentinel (Washington DC), April 7, 1855, page 3.

“Egg picking” was another traditional Easter Monday game, in which one egg was tapped against another until one egg's shell broke; the owner of the stronger egg winning the the broken egg from the loser.

They also rolled and “picked” eggs across the river in Alexandria, Virginia during the same period.

Easter Monday. 

Large quantities of eggs were in the hands, pockets rather, of the boys, who did a brisk business ‘Picking;’ and the eggs changed hands often, much to the joy of the winner but the chagrin of the looser.  Numbers of little girls, with little baskets, filled with eggs, dyed all the colors of the Rainbow, proceeded outside the city, to seek a smooth hillside, where they amused themselves egg rolling.  Having succeeded in breaking the eggs, they had a general feast to which the whole company, in the neighborhood, were invited and a general egg frolic ensued.  All had a happy and joyous time.  The colored population of the city and neighboring country were out in large numbers, dressed in their holiday costumes. – Those from the country were engaged in selling, making purchases, visiting, and sight-seeing; they were hospitably received and entertained by their city friends and we have never seen a more delighted and happy looking set of people.

Alexandria Gazette, March 25, 1856, page 3.

Easter Monday. – had its old customs with the children – and happy groups were to be seen on the hill sides, in the morning, “rolling their eggs,” and enjoying their innocent sports – their gaiety not even repressed by the weather, which was cold and damp.

Alexandria Gazette, April 14, 1857, page 3.
Alexandria Gazette, April 22, 1867, page 3.

Alexandria Gazette, April 10, 1871, page 3.

Egg rolling wasn’t always just fun and games.  In 1868, a group of children from Alexandria rolling eggs “near the water reservoir, beyond West End” were victims of a “vicious assault” which ended in an “exciting chase.”

Two or three of the children were severely hurt by the blows and kicks of their assailants.  Some of the citizens of West End, upon being informed of the circumstances of the affair, procured a warrant for the arrest of the guilty parties, and after an exciting chase, during which mill races were traversed, and guns and knives produced by the fugitives, five were captured, two of whom – Bill Jackson and Bill Mason – after examination before Justice Lewis, were committed to Fairfax county jail.

Alexandria Gazette, April 14, 1868, page 3.

The tradition also appears to have continued in Washington DC, even though specific references to it were few and far between.  After the early reference to egg rolling on the “President’s grounds” in 1860, the next earliest references to rolling eggs in Washington DCC appeared in 1873.  

Republican Banner (Greensburg, Kansas), March 23, 1894, page 3.

Hundreds of bright and happy children enjoyed themselves in the President's grounds yesterday [(Easter Monday)], and on other grounds, rolling their Easter eggs.

National Republican (Washington DC), April 15, 1873, page 4.

By 1874, the tradition of rolling eggs on Easter Monday in Washington DC appears to have grown in popularity, with hundreds of children turning into thousands.  And the Capitol had become the most popular spot, although it took place at "the grounds around the President's house and in the other parks" that year as well.[v]

Gamboling on the Green. – To-day being Easter Monday, and a holiday for the pupils of the public schools, as many as 5,000 children, girls and boys, at about 9 o’clock this morning, wended their way to the west Capitol grounds for the purpose of spending the day.  Most of them carried lunch baskets, and all were provided with a goodly number of hard-boiled eggs variously colored.  Several of the children were present.  The freedom of the grounds being tendered them by the Capitol police, the little ones at once began the sports of the day by rolling their eggs down the terraces.  When they became broken they were eaten by the boys and girls and others were produced for another test.  If, after several trials, they were not broken, the game of “picking eggs” was indulged in.  Another way the boys had of getting rid of their surplus vitality was to roll from the top to the bottom of the terraces, and then clamber up again and repeat the performance.

Evening Star (Washington DC), April 6, 1874, page 4.

The Easter egg roll at the Capitol also made headlines for less innocent reasons that year.  Armistead (or Omstead) Holmes and William Woodlawn “not only stopped the children in their harmless pleasure of trundling their varied-colored eggs down the declivity, but began picking them up and tossing them indiscriminately down the bank, regardless of how they reached the bottom.”  In at least one case, they sent a young girl “unprepared on the back-handspring-action down an embankment of several feet in height, injuring her quite severely.”[vi]  They also assaulted a policeman during the arrest.

Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), April 20, 1889, page 2.

In 1875, the children of Washington DC again rolled eggs at the Capitol and the White House.

The big boys have for a week been “picking eggs,” and the little ones and the girls have been anxiously waiting for to-morrow to see their dyed-eggs of many colors, and will wait anxiously for the next day, when they can have the fun of rolling both themselves and the eggs down hill and having a good time generally – the grounds of the Capitol and the Executive Mansion being placed at their disposal for that purpose annually.

National Republican (Washington DC), March 27, 1875, page 1.

The grounds around the President’s house and capitol building were completely taken possession of to-day by children, in the usual custom of “rolling eggs.”  It is estimated that at one time there were present in the capitol grounds at least three thousand persons enjoying themselves, old as well as young, whose time was mostly spent in running up and down the hills.

Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1875, page 4. 

Several other widely circulated, lengthy accounts of the 1875 egg roll may have helped set in motion events that would result, one year later, in legislation banning the practice from the Capitol, leading ultimately to the White House becoming ground-zero for Easter Monday egg rolling in Washington DC.

Before 1875, references to Easter Monday egg rolling in the United States were few and far between.  In the two major online newspaper archives I consulted in preparing this piece ( and the Library of Congress’, I found only four references to egg rolling in Washington DC dated before 1875, with a fourteen-year gap in the middle, and only in local newspapers.  The only other references to egg rolling in the United States were the handful of references from Alexandria, Virginia, also in local newspapers only.  The New York Herald had published a brief description of egg rolling in 1853, but only as a custom practiced in England.

But egg rolling’s low profile would change in 1875.  A local newspaper published, for the first time, a lengthy, detailed, sentimental description of all of the events of Easter Monday, which may have educated many government officials and civil servants from out of town about the tradition.  A newspaper in nearby Baltimore published a detailed account of the day for the first time.[viii]  A newspaper in Rock Island, Illinois published a lengthy letter from its Washington correspondent, describing the entire day in detail,[ix] and a Chicago newspaper published a description of egg rolling as practiced in the “South,” without naming Washington DC specifically.[x]

Most significantly, Helen Stuart Campbell’s (as Helen C. Weeks) short story, “Fred’s Easter Monday,” appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine[xi] that year.  St. Nicholas was a popular children’s magazine with a national distribution and tens of thousands of readers.  “Fred’s Easter Monday” was at the time, likely the most widely read account of Washington DC’s Easter Monday egg rolling traditions ever published. 

In “Fred’s Easter Monday,” an overprotective mother and recent transplant from Maine leaves her pampered, supposedly sickly son, Fred, home alone on Easter Monday with only one instruction – under no circumstances was he to leave the house.  He had every intention of following her instructions until a sparrow tapped on his windowsill, enticing him out into the sunlight and fresh air.  While looking at a caged owl that caught his attention, he strikes up a conversation with boy about his age, the first “real colored boy” he had ever met. 

The boy, George Washington Dayspring, invites Fred along to Capitol to roll a “heap” of eggs, to which Fred wonders, “why should there be a ‘heap’ of eggs up at the Capitol, and did colored people always roll them, or were they for the Senators and Representatives, who, as some one had told him, were there every day?  What did they roll them for?  Suppose they broke!”

 “’Seems to me you aint got no sense, no how,’ George Washington said, looking rather scornfully at Fred.  ‘Maybe you’s from de Norf, though.  Mammy says folks don’t know so much up Norf as dey do roun’ here.  Don’t you never roll eggs up dat way?’”

“’I guess we know enough not to,’ Fred answered, looking a little fierce.  ‘Who wants to use up eggs that way?  I’d rather sell ‘em, or eat ‘em.’”

George explains the situation, offers Fred one of his eggs, and they trot off to the Capitol.  As they pass by a uniformed policeman, George told Fred about the unique freedoms of Easter Monday, “Most days they orders us round, but to-day they lets us do anything but pull de flowers.”  After seeing the Rotunda and the hall of statues, they went out to the terraces and spent the afternoon rolling eggs, eating eggs, rolling themselves down the hill, running up again, and napping.

A few grass stains, scrapes and torn clothes later, George shows Fred the way home.  Fearful of what his mother might say, Fred cleans himself up to erase the evidence.  But when his mother comes home and apologizes for keeping him pent up all day, he confesses everything.  He didn’t break a promise he says, he only disobeyed an order, which isn’t quite so bad.  His mother decides that he isn’t the worse for wear, and forgives him.

Although it may be difficult if not impossible to assess the effect the story had on the attendance at the following year’s Easter egg roll, at least one journalist who attended the event for the first in 1876 credited the story with having piqued his curiosity.  Who knows how many others attended for the first time for the same reason?

Washington, April 24, 1876. A week ago to-day was Easter Monday, and I saw the strangest sight that one could imagine, upon the Capitol grounds.  A year or so since I read somewhere a story about a small boy in Washington who ran away from home on Easter Monday and rolled himself and his eggs down the Capitol terraces all day until he was a sight to behold, but didn’t know what it mean’t.  Last Monday I found it out.

Atchison Daily Champion, April 28, 1876, page 2.

Although some estimates put the number of children at the Capitol between 3,000 and 5,000, one observer felt there were at least 10,000 people on hand; much higher than any estimates in previous years.

Leaving thus the field of religion with its soothing, peaceful calm, we turned our steps on Monday to the next stage of gay, active life.  The children have a custom to assemble on the grounds around the Capitol on the Monday after Easter and roll eggs down the terraces of the west front.  This year there must have been nearly ten thousand people on hand, mostly of the small kind . . . .

The New North-West (Deer Lodge, Montana), May 12, 1876, page 2.

But whether there were, in fact, more people or not, the crowd may have nevertheless been unusually disruptive to the business in the Capitol.  The Senate was in session for the Belknap impeachment trial and the House to vote on the Kilbourn Habeas Corpus resolution. 

The Capitol at Washington was never in its history, perhaps, so thronged with people as it was to-day.  A triple attraction brought the concourse together.  The impeachment proceedings in the Senate made one part and the debate and the vote on the habeas corpus question in the House made another, while the third was a peculiar local celebration of Easter Monday known as “egg rolling,” a sport enjoyed by thousands of children and youth of both sexes, for whom the day is a school holiday.  It would be hard to trace the history of the sport which is played by the children rolling and racing colored Easter eggs down the green slopes of Capitol Hill, under the very walls of the great building itself, which spot and the slopes on the river side [South lawn] of the White House are the two places of rendezvous for the amusement.  The great annual Sunday school parade at Brooklyn Prospect Park will give the reader some idea of the exciting scene, if he will fancy the thousands of children scampering up and down a green hill side, chasing the colored eggs until they break them into the finest pieces, and then romping with each other in chasing up the hill and racing down again, while the welkin rings with their laughter.  Hundreds of Congressmen and strangers stood by the hour and watched the festivities from the porches of the Capitol, which was surrounded by the children on three sides, playing in three close ranks on the three terraces and slopes of Capitol Hill.

New York Herald, April 18, 1876, page 3.

Dayton Herald (Dayton, Ohio), May 7, 1887, page 6.

And regardless with how disruptive or large the crowds were on Easter Monday 1876, they appear to have been more destructive than in earlier years.

While the impeachment proceedings were going on in the Capitol, outside, on the lawns and terraces, the children were celebrating Easter Monday, with dyed eggs.  I never fully understood the significance of Easter eggs, but I know the children always have a holiday and flock to the Capitol grounds in crowds.  After they have rolled their hard boiled eggs down the hills until they break, they eat them, and then roll themselves down.  Small boys were rolling in every direction and some not so small were being dragged down by one foot by their playmates.

I have often thought our government was extremely magnanimous to allow the grounds about its Capitol, to be so abused on Easter Monday.  Hardly a spear of the new fresh grass is left; but I understand that in the future the children will have to go elsewhere, for egg rolling is not to be allowed in the Capitol park again.

Oshkosh Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin), April 25, 1876, page 1.

And indeed, there would be no more egg rolling at the Capitol.  On Tuesday after Easter Monday, Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill, “passed by a large majority, imposing a severe penalty upon any person found trespassing on the sward in future.  He claims that several thousand dollars will scarcely repair the damage caused by this innocent sport.”[xii]  The bill quickly passed through the House and President Grant signed it into law on April 29, 1876.

But for a drenching rain, the year 1877 might have marked the new era of “official” White House Easter egg rolls.

This being “Easter egg day,” so called by the little folks, egg rolling was supposed to be the order of the day, but a drenching rain at an early hour put a stop to the long anticipated sports, and the beautiful dyed eggs were either eaten or stowed away. . . .  An act of Congress ordered that no more egg rolling should take place in the Capitol grounds, and the young people in consequence were very indignant; their indignation was, however, to a certain extent, appeased, as the elements set aside all plans and arrangements.

The Cecil Whig (Elkton, Maryland), April 7, 1877, page 2.

A few brave souls managed to get outside and play with their eggs despite the weather, but not without difficulty – difficulties completely unrelated to weather.

Albert Steptoe, colored, was charged in the Police Court yesterday with assaulting George Hill.  Hill was a small colored boy, with a large Picadilly collar and a yard neck-tie.  Hill said he was playing with Easter-eggs.  “Albert come up and said he took off all boys’ chokers, and he grabbed me by the neck and cut me with a stick.”  The witness grabbed hold of his collar and dragged himself around, to show the court how Steptoe had treated him.  Steptoe was fined $5 and costs.

National Republican, April 4, 1877, page 4.

With the Capitol terraces off-limits, Easter Monday 1878 ushered in a new era of egg rolling at the White House.  A week before Easter, the papers reminded people of the new rule.

Evening Star, April 20, 1878, page 4.

The President made a point of opening the White House lawn for people who might otherwise have gone to the Capitol.  The same article suggested that perhaps the damage to the lawns had been a persistent problem, and the Capitol ban was a long time in coming. 

For several years the grass was swept off the terraces of the capitol every Easter by the myriads of egg-rollers, but since 1876 the use of the capitol grounds for the purpose has been forbidden by an act of Congress.  It is understood that the President has given permission to all children to roll eggs on the hills in the grounds attached to the executive mansion.

The Baltimore Sun, April 22, 1878, page 4.
Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times (Deadwood, South Dakota), April 8, 1888, page 1.

By opening the White House lawn to egg rollers when the Capitol was no longer available, President Hayes earned a place in history as the President who started the tradition, despite the fact that children had been rolling eggs at the White House since at least as early as 1860, and had rolled them there regularly during the 1870s. 

If he received too much credit, it may be because the journalists covering the story did not fully appreciate the extent of the local custom.  It was, after all, just a few years after the event first drew widespread interest in the national press in 1875, and the first fair-weather Easter since Congress banned the practice at the Capitol in 1876.  But he did embrace the custom when Congress turned its back, so perhaps he does deserve credit for keeping the tradition alive when it might otherwise have died out.

Egg rolling at the White House was decidedly less exciting and fun than it had been on the Capitol terraces.  It’s not the children who changed, the topography was all wrong.  Eggs simply rolled better down the steep terraces of Capitol Hill than on the gently rolling slopes of the South Lawn. 

A nostalgic look back at the egg rolling at the Capitol highlighted the differences.

This was the only day in the year that the injunction, “Keep off the grass,” could be legally disregarded.

Egg-rolling was then an exciting amusement.  The west terrace is built at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and was covered with well-kept grass.  Sometimes between three and four hundred children gathered at the top of the terrace and let their eggs roll down the incline.  It happened not infrequently that little girls and boys and broken eggs were mingled in the descent.  Legitimate egg-rolling was conducted this way:  A dozen or more boys and girls scratched their initials on their eggs.  They then stood in a row at the top of the terrace, each holding an egg on the grass.  At a signal from one of the party all hands were withdrawn from the eggs.  Each little one followed his or her egg down the terrace.  The owner of the unbroken egg arriving first at the bottom of the terrace was entitled to all the other eggs.

Five years ago the crowd of egg-rollers got so large and attracted such a disorderly element that the terrace grass was ruined.  Since then egg-rolling has been carried on in the White-house grounds on the hills just south of the building.  This is where many children will go on Monday to repeat in a milder degree the scenes that drew so many children, who have since become men and women, to the Capitol grounds . . . .

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), April 17, 1884, page 3.

Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), April 20, 1889, page 2.

In 1902, Thomas Edison shot footage of “Babies Rolling Eggs” at the White House – it doesn’t look like much fun. (Library of Congress).

Perhaps it was the gentle, boring slopes at the White House that prompted some people to seek better hillsides for their egg rolls.

From Her Balcony, Mrs. Cleveland and her daughters are interested spectators of the Easter Monday egg-rolling on the White House grounds. San Francisco Examiner, April 5, 1896, page 23.

Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times (Deadwood, South Dakota), April 8, 1888, page 1 (the South Lawn of the White House was commonly known as the "White Lot").

Egg Rolling at the National Zoo

In 1878, the same year in which the President opened the White House grounds on Easter Monday with the Capitol terraces off-limits, one newspaper listed an alternate egg-rolling spot in what may be the earliest known reference to Washington DC’s other long-standing egg rolling location, the National Zoo.

To-morrow will be a general holiday with the children of the District, and egg-rolling parties are being made up for the country.  Quite a number of children will go to the hills near Rock creek . . . . 

The Baltimore Sun, April 22, 1878, page 4.

In 1888, Senator James B. Beck of Kentucky introduced a bill for the formation of a commission “to select a tract of land not more than 100 acres in extent, along the shores of Rock creek, a stream separating Washington from Georgetown, such land to be used for the purposes of a national zoological park.”[xiii] While it is not certain that the spot where children rolled their eggs on “the hills near Rock creek” in 1878 were within the current boundaries of the Zoo, this early reference suggests that the tradition of rolling eggs at the Zoo may pre-date the Zoo, and could be an extension of an older custom.

Rolling eggs at the National Zoo was a well-established by 1907.  It was more convenient for people who lived far from the White House, and stayed open longer for those who just couldn’t get enough.  Others rolled their eggs at more convenient locations.

The Zoological Park was the scene today of a large gathering of children, who were accompanied by their parents, older brothers and sisters and nurses. . . .  At this time Superintendent Baker of the park always turns the lawns over to the wee folk, and today they were there from all parts of the city.  Many who live in the suburban sections of the northwest far from the White House grounds came to the Zoo Park, and under watchful eyes of the park police, they passed the time happily.

After the close of the games at the White House grounds many of the children with their tiny baskets were taken to the Zoo Park, where they continued the pleasure begun earlier in the day. . . .

In different parts of Randle Park, Congress Heights, a number of children played the Easter games, and others were in Lincoln Park, in the northeast section of the city . . . .

Evening Star (Washington DC), April 1, 1907, page 1.

Although the numbers had been down in 1907 due to cold weather, the crowds the following year were “Immense.”

The National Zoological Park, with its picturesque natural features, is said to have become a rival with the White Lot [(South Lawn)] for the Easter Monday crowds.  The number of people who visited the Zoo yesterday was by actual count 29,196.  Many of the number were children, who engaged in egg rolling and other sports.

Evening Star (Washington DC), April 21, 1908, page 4.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture, Easter Monday at the Zoo continues to this day, “especially as an African American family celebration.”

"Easter Monday" at the National Zoo was a popular tradition among African American communities, the day after Easter since 1892.

Many of the visitors were African Americans who flocked to the zoo on their day off after the holiday, and faced discrimination at other events, like the White House Easter Egg Roll. Crowds spent the day seeing the animals, picnicking, and, especially popular among the children, enjoying the Annual Easter Egg Roll on Lion and Tiger Hill, shown here. The Easter Monday tradition has continued to the present, especially as an African American family celebration. In 1919, attendance reached nearly 55,000 people. #APeoplesJourney

Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), April 23, 1916, page 36.

Egg Rolling Ban at the White House

President Woodrow Wilson cancelled several Easter Monday egg rolls during World War I due to security issues.  In World War II, “Franklin Roosevelt put a stop to the egg rolling on the White House lawn, where the practice had become a tradition on Easter Monday.  He said it was a waste of food, because several thousand kids can grind a lot of eggs into the soil.”[xiv]  But the legislature may not have been on the same page.  Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas (the first woman elected to serve a full term in the Senate) hosted an Easter egg roll at the Capitol in 1942, the first year of the ban.

The annual Easter egg-rolling on the White House lawn was called off yesterday, but youngsters were permitted to roll their own on the Capitol lawn.  Senator Hattie Caraway (seated) was hostess. New York Daily News, April 7, 1942, page 4.

The ban would last for twelve years.  President Truman had an opportunity to revive the tradition when the war was over, but refused; the White House social secretary calling it an “orgy of wasted eggs.”  And Mrs. Truman opposed wasting food during the post-war years when many countries were facing starvation.  The tradition would not return until President Eisenhower brought it back in 1953.

In the interim, egg rolling continued full-throttle at the Zoo.  Accounts of those events might easily have persuaded the Trumans to resist reinstatement, regardless of the food situation.

[T]he rolling and throwing of eggs went on as usual Monday at the national zoological park.  The cops can’t do much about it there, because there are no rules.

By 3 p.m. there were about 49,000 people in the place.  The kids gathered in groups and organized their own egg rolls.  There were no prizes.  But the police estimated there were at least 1,000 fights.  Some conducted a game called “smash-the-other-fellows-egg-and-eat-it-if-you-can.”

Capt. J. A. Collins of the park police probably had the roughest job.  He was in charge of the lost and found department.  You’d be surprised how many kids can jerk away from mama in a place that size and get themselves lost.

. . . He said that the big job would come in the next few days.  Cleaning up the shells and the rest of the mess.

“And before we get it all cleaned up,” he said, “here will come another Sunday - , and more picnics.  But thank goodness without so many hard-boiled eggs.

Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama), March 31, 1948, page 4.

Jackson Daily News (Jackson, Mississippi), March 23, 1910, page 5.

[i] The White House Historical Association acknowledges “accounts of informal egg rolls staged by the children of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.” “A Brief History of the White House Easter Egg Roll,” Christopher Klein, See also, “With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll,” C. L. Arbelbide, Prologue Magazine, Spring 2000, Volume 32, Number 1 (Part I); “With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll,” Part II.
[ii] Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1941, page 33 (“The contest, similar to those that have been held on the White House lawn since the days of Dolley Madison, will be held in Fox park . . . .”); The Leader Courier (Kingman, Kansas), April 23, 1885, page 1; The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin), April 6, 1888, page 4.
[iii] Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), April 17, 1884, page 3.
[iv] The Austin Weekly Statesman (Austin, Texas), April 9, 1891, page 2.  Professor Mason may have had some reason to believe that it did come from Scotland.  A letter published in the Jounal of The Folk-Lore Society in England suggested that children rolled colored eggs on May Day near Inverness, Scotland, and on the Saturday before "Peace Sunday" in northeastern Scotland. "May Day Custom," Folk-Lore, London, Folk-Lore Society, Volume 7, 1889, page 265 ("Mr. Alexander Mackenzie, of 16, Braidburn Terrace, Edinburgh, remembers that in his boyhood cottages in Strath Nairn (near Inverness) . . . on the 1st of May (Old Style), which they called Beltane Day, the children used to roll eggs, coloured blue, yellow, etc., down a hill.  Does any reader know other cases of rolling eggs on May Day?  The custom of rolling eggs on the Saturday before "Peace Sunday" in the N. E. of Scotland is mentioned by the Rev. Walter Gregor in his Folklore of the North-East of Scotland.").
[v] Geo. C. Smithe, Glimpses of Places, and People, and Things: Extracts from Published Correspondence and Other Writing, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Ypsilanti Press, 1887, page 105 (letter dated April 8, 1874).
[vi] National Republican (Washington DC), April 7, 1874, page 5; National Republican (Washington DC), April 8, 1874, page 8.
[vii] The Weekly Standard and Express (Blackburn, Lancashire), March 15, 1890, page 2. Special thanks to Professor Andrew Hobbs, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, for confirming the identity of the poet, and identifying the poem as having been written in Lancashire dialect.
[viii] National Republican (Washington DC), March 30, 1875, page 4; Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1875, page 4.
[ix] Daily Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), April 3, 1875, page 2.
[x] Chicago Daily Tribune, March 28, 1875, page 1.
[xi] “Fred’s Easter Monday,” Helen C. Weeks, St. Nicholas Magazine, April 1875, page 356-358.
[xii] Spirit of the South (Rockingham, North Carolina), April 29, 1876, page 2.
[xiii] McPherson Daily Freeman (McPherson, Kansas), April 24, 1888, page 1.
[xiv] Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama), March 31, 1948, page 4.